March 20, 2004

Welcome to the Party: The 2004 PartyPoker Million Cruise

In the same boat

Shortstack and I spent the weekend in Vegas with my brother Mike prior to the Party Poker Million cruise out of San Diego so I booked three different flights to get us in at the last minute in case two of them were delayed. There was no problem with the earliest of the three, Southwest 101, so we used the kiosk to check in and breezed through secret security to concourse C. Many of the Vegas-based tourney pros had the same idea and we shared the flight with Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, Erik "Rounders" Seidel, David Benyamine, and Scotty Nguyen. Service on the short flight was limited to one drink in a plastic cup and the famous Southwest peanuts. We landed on time and an unhappy cabbie took us the short distance to the pier.


I had won an entry into this tournament through a $200 satellite on PartyPoker with 1069 entrants. The entry included a standard cabin but I slipped them a little something and got us upgraded to a Verandah Suite. By the time we got there most everyone was aboard so check-in didn't take very long. There was, however, a long line for the tournament registration. There were so many entrants that the first day of play was split into two flights on consecutive days. I drew day one. This was the only tournament on the World Poker Tour where they played Limit Hold 'Em, not the usual No Limit, and I was quite inexperienced with the game. Fortunately, top pro Allen Cunningham was in line ahead of me and I asked him how to play. He game me a bit of advice and I told him I'd be sure to credit him when I won. They handed me a bag of PartyPoker logo apparel and a Shana Hiatt pin-up calendar. I thought I might need a few extra calendars but Shortstack was dragging me by the pants leg onto the ship so I followed her.


We had stuffed everything for the week into carry-on bags to maximize our chances of making our flight so we unpacked and explored the ship rather than waiting for the bags to be delivered as usual. The Holland America Ryndam was much smaller than the Voyager of the Seas that had hosted the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. PartyPoker had chartered the entire ship, though, so they were able to cordon off the entire upper half of the main dining room to make the most beautiful poker room on earth, or rather on sea, surrounded on three sides with picture windows into the ocean. We found Andy "The Rock" Bloch in the spa studying an egg-shaped machine that supposedly gave you the equivalent of a full night's sleep for 20 minutes spent inside but it reminded me of the Orgasmatron from the Woody Allen movie Sleeper. Erik "Rounders" Seidel was there getting himself into top physical condition by working out on the elliptical machine. Bit by bit, I was learning the secrets of the pros.


Soon it was time for the mandatory lifeboat drill. Shortstack and I donned life jackets and headed down to the boat deck where we were assigned the lifeboat right next to Shana Hiatt and her husband Jimmy Van Patten, brother of World Poker Tour host Vince. I thought there might have been some mistake and perhaps we should have been in the same boat but I was quickly hushed by the ship's officer and shoved back into formation, bouncing in my life vest gently against the surrounding passengers like a bumper car in a traffic jam. Soon the drill was over and we were underway.


Party Poker threw a nice cocktail party for us before dinner. Excited low-limit players from all over had won entries into this by playing on-line satellites and most of the top pros were here hoping they had a big advantage over them. We went up to the poker room before dinner and found poker legends T.J. Cloutier, Daniel Negreanu, Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren, and Josh Arieh playing a $20 buy-in Indian Poker tournament along with their wives and girlfriends. Indian Poker is the game where you're dealt one card and, without looking at it, put it up on your forehead for everyone else to see. Then you bet. A good time was had by all.


We ran into long-time pro Steve "Z" Zolotow, who joined us at the open-seating dinner with Andy, WPT producer Steve Lipscomb, and several of the WPT staff including Paul Hannum, the cameraman who had been taking sound bytes of me for weeks, saving them for when I finally made a final table. I thanked him for that. Dinner was quite good, especially for sailing day, in my experience often the weakest meal of a cruise. After dinner the kids headed up to the Crow's Nest for drinking and dancing but Shortstack and I retired to the suite to rest up for the big day.


It all went right

I drew table 12, seat eight to start the tournament. There were 272 people in flight one of the tourney and 274 in flight two tomorrow for a record WPT field of 546. Although it was announced as a record prize pool, it was actually slightly less than the LA Poker Classic because of a 3% deduction in lieu of tips. This made the juice an outrageous 9.5% or $710 per person in addition to whatever arbitrage they were making on the price of the cabins of the $1500 allocated in the satellite prize pools. Given that PartyPoker was making an order of magnitude more money than any casino in the history of poker I found this greedy vig to be somewhat distasteful. When we sat at our tables we were asked to sign an extremely broad release giving PartyPoker.Com the right to use our names, images, and biographies to promote anything they wanted, related or unrelated to this tournament and offering no compensation whatsoever. I politely declined to sign seeing as how I was paying them to be in the tournament rather than the other way around. They let me play anyway.


We had a table full of nice people but the only tournament regulars I recognized were Bob Feduniak, husband of Maureen Feduniak, who made the final table on last year's cruise, and Denny Axel, who used to run Card Player magazine until he sold it to Barry Shulman. I didn't have much experience playing limit but I played aggressive and hit my cards and found myself up to 9275 from the initial 7000 chips at the first break. Not a single player was eliminated in the first two levels but soon after we returned Matt Savage announced the first player out. About ten minutes later the great Phil Hellmuth, Jr., was eliminated and Erik "Rounders" Seidel and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson went by the wayside in the course of the next couple levels. Bob Feduniak didn't win a single pot and he was out early, soon followed by his lovely wife at the next table. Meanwhile, I was hitting flops like a madman, flopping the nut flush once for a nice pot, making an inside Straight draw on the Turn for Broadway, and then dragging down a huge pot when I made Four Eights and my opponent made a Flush on the River. By the next break I had almost tripled my starting stack to 20,300 chips.


The blinds went up but my cards didn't stop hitting. By the time they broke our table I had 45,000 chips and I got moved to table three. "Captain" Tommy Franklin sat to my left with about the same number of chips as me. I sat down in good position, one off the button, and immediately picked up three big starting hands in a row. Tommy raised his eyebrows, thinking I was playing like a maniac, but didn't have anything to play back at me with. However, when I picked up Pocket Kings on the third hand I got a call from the stylish April Moody from Toronto. I bet the Jack-high flop and she called and check-raised me when a blank came on the Turn. "Oh-oh!" said Tommy, "You don't know what you're getting yourself into!" Apparently April had been hitting Sets all night and as I called her down with my Overpair sure enough she turned over Pocket Sevens, matching a Seven on the board for the winner. There went the money I had won on the last two hands but it all went right from then on and I finished the day with an astonishing 64,500 chips, over nine times my initial stack. WPT cameraman Paul Hannum gave me the thumbs-up, happy that all his archive footage might finally get used. Kathy Liebert, winner of the PartyPoker Million I two years ago, said I had just about the same chips she had at the end of day one when she won it. Of course there were a lot fewer people in it that year. Anyway, I was bouncing off the walls and I didn't know how I was going to handle having a day off tomorrow. I wanted to play!


We snagged Andy "The Rock" Bloch away from a Chinese Poker game with Phil Hellmuth, Jr., who was in the process of buying and drinking every bottle of Dom Perignon aboard ship. Andy and Howard Lederer's wife Suzie joined us for dinner in the dining room. I took the waiter's recommendations and dinner was once again very good, much better, I thought, than the food on the last few Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises I had taken and Shortstack concurred. I ordered the last bottle of 1999 Beringer Private Reserve, a steal at $85, and the four of us polished it off although they wouldn't let me pay in tournament chips. I was flattered to learn that Andy, who was mildly allergic to red wine, had had enough meals with me to decide the wines I ordered were usually worth a few sneezes. We shared a big round table with four nice people who had won satellites. We wished each other luck.


"Captain" Tommy Franklin had invited me up to do some karaoke in the Ocean bar at 11. I knew his plan was to get me liquored up and then lure me into playing Chinese Poker with him for $100 a point but I told him I was onto his Southern hick act and knew he had a Ph.D. in mathematics. He wrinkled his nose. In any case I was too tired to stay up another hour so I retired to the suite accompanied by Shortstack, who hummed the tune "Big Spender" all the way, occasionally bursting out with "Hey, chip leader!" I realized it was still a long way to the final table but I was in about the best position I could be. We slept soundly, smiling.


Guess who?

It turned out I was only in second place, with an Internet player beating my chip count by 3500. Nonetheless I was in great shape going into day two tomorrow. Today was a day off for me as Andy, Howard, Daniel Negreanu, Chip Jett, Gus Hansen and the rest played the second half of day one. I hung around the poker room and watched Gussie nurse his last 600 in chips for about two hours before finally putting them in on the small blind with a small Ace and running into Kathy Liebert's Big Slick. Chip Jett had built an impressive castle of purple and black but his luck turned and he ended up busting out before the end of the day. Andy didn't catch much and busted out early but my old nemesis Scotty Nguyen had a big stack. I played some Pot-Limit Omaha until it was time for dinner in preparation for perhaps entering those events in the upcoming Bellagio and Binion's extravaganzas in April and May.


We had made a reservation for four at the gourmet restaurant Pinnacle but by the time all was said and done we had a table for 10 and the Maitre D' had enough tips to buy a fleet of new tuxedos. Erik "Rounders" Seidel joined us for a farewell dinner, having decided to jump ship tomorrow in Cabo since there was no more poker for him. Our usual companion Andy "The Rock" Bloch was there as was the young Indonesian pro John Juanda and his girlfriend Nicole. Howard "Bub" (The Professor) Lederer and wife Suzie happily joined us and Steve "Z" Zolotow regaled us with stories from his colorful, if checkered, past. The tenth was a nice Iranian guy named Ali with whom I had just played Pot-Limit Omaha who generously let us expand into his table for one.


The food was good, the service was friendly but slow, and we sampled all the best Cabernets from the list: the 1998 Beringer Private Reserve, much more of a lightweight than its younger brother we drank last night; the 2000 Caymus, strong and chocolaty; and the 1999 Silver Oak Napa, yummy but extra oaky. Oak was a controversial flavor in the big California Cabernets. I didn't mind it but to Howard it tasted like pencil shavings. Andy asked Howard how he was doing and he flashed fingers to indicate he had 32,000 chips. I had to use both hands as I eagerly flashed back my chip count. "I know, I know," said Howard as he gave me a dirty look. Andy said, "It's the Andy Bloch effect. Whoever I have dinner with always wins the tournament." I said, "But I have dinner with you every tournament." "Oh," Andy said. I mentioned they would have to charter a bigger ship for next year and Howard said they already had, although it would still hold only about 700 players. Steve Z said soon they would charter the entire fleet and people would be crowing about how they made the final ship.


After dinner Shortstack went to bed early in preparation for an early fishing expedition and I went up to make the rounds with Andy, Suzie, and Steve. In the Ocean Bar we ran into Josh Arieh, who had unfortunately busted, and Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren, who have me a bear hug and said, "Guess who's sitting to your left tomorrow?" I was crazy about Erick, one of the nicest and most congenial young players on the Tour, but I wasn't thrilled about a past WPT winner sitting at my left when I was trying to preserve and build my stack. He only had about 13,000 chips so perhaps he wouldn't be too frisky.


I popped briefly up to the Crow's Nest, which was having disco night, but soon returned to the suite to rest up for tomorrow night's play.

A round of applause

The Ryndam docked at Cabo San Lucas Tuesday morning but I followed The Professor's advice and stayed on board to avoid getting wiped out by the sun. Howard said it was important to have his "A" game at 2:30 a.m. Of course I wasn't sure how much difference there was in my case between my "A" game and the rest of the alphabet but I figured it couldn't hurt to take advice from last year's champion. I napped most of the afternoon and by six I was fresh as a daisy and raring to go. Shortstack and I had dinner by ourselves in the ship's dining room. Tonight's menu had dishes named after the honchos aboard. Shortstack and I had the "Vince Van Patten" swordfish, passing up the "Mike Sexton" prime rib. Shortstack said, "How come your friend Shana Hiatt isn't on the menu?" I shrugged and smiled, resisting the temptation to say, "She must be dessert." It turned out she was, in the avatar of apple strudel, no sugar added. As we exited the dining room we saw her and her husband Jimmy eating with Andy "The Rock" Bloch and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. There was a lot of apple strudel being ordered all over the dining room.


My new table was mostly unknown players with small stacks but E-Dog doubled up early on my left and became a royal pain in the side, calling when I tried to steal and raising under the gun when I had the big blind to get position on me. Bellagio poker-room manager Jack McClelland was playing rather than refereeing for a change and I lost some chips to him but got them back when my Pocket Jacks filled up on the River. I ran into two big hands and my 64,500 was down to a low of 21,000 when they announced we were all in the money. I had won at least $2000, my first cash prize on the World Poker Tour. My luck returned then because I flopped two more Sets and got my chip count back up to 80,000. I busted Gavin Smith when I cracked his Aces with a Set of Nines and another player called me down for all his chips, mucking when my pocket Kings held up. I had 120,000 when they broke the table and I was on top of the world.


I was singing and dancing at the prospect of E-Dog being gone from my left but my new table was a nightmare. The solid Jack McClelland was at my left and beyond him were Daniel Negreanu, the stylish Torontonian chip leader April Moody, and WPT Tunica champion Barry "Charity" Greenstein, considered by some the top poker player in the world. Barry wasted no time raising my Big Blind from across the table. It folded to me and I saw Ace-King of diamonds. "I'm gonna re-pop you, Barry," I said, visions of the final table dancing in my head, and shoved out 12,000 chips. He called and the flop came low. I led out for 4000 and Barry called. The Turn was another low card and I bet again, hoping he would lay down to the high pair I was representing. He thought a moment and called. The River was no help and I knew the only way I could win the pot was to bet so I put out another 8000. He looked again at his hole cards and reluctantly called. I turned over Ace high and he showed pocket Sevens to drag down the 64,000-chip pot. I quickly lost another 32,000 to Daniel Negreanu when I had the misfortune to get Ace-King again: this time Daniel had pocket Jacks.


Down to 55,000, I called the very loose Daniel a couple times with marginal hands when he raised my Big Blind but I couldn't catch a pair either time and bailed out. Then, with five tables left, they moved us all out into the big room so the spectators could see us play. To my horror, Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren came and took the empty seat between Jack and Daniel. "Table change!" I called out but it was not possible.


I was back down to 23,000 chips and the blinds were raised to 2500 and 5000. I had to play the first reasonable hand I got, and it would probably be my last. E-Dog raised my Big Blind as usual but the Small Blind called in front of me when I saw Pocket Eights. "Time!" I said. If I reraised here I would only have 8000 left. I let fear get the best of me and just called, planning to go for broke if only one overcard flopped and otherwise save it for one more shot. The Flop came Queen-Jack-Low and the Small Blind bet out. There was a decent chance he was trying to bluff two people but I decided not to risk it and mucked the Eights. Later I discussed the hand with The Rock and we agreed it would have been better to get the money in pre-flop when I probably had the best hand.


Finally, with 10,500 left, two red Threes in the Big Blind, and E-Dog raising in early position as usual, I reraised my last 500. "I'm all in!" I yelled. "Get the all-in cam!" Paul Hannum came hustling over and recorded for posterity as Erick turned over Ace-Five and flopped an Ace to leave me two outs. They didn't come and I was out of the contest, finishing 40th out of 546 for $10,387. It was 2:05 a.m. To my surprise, there was a nice round of applause from the spectators. Paul said, "Did you hear that? It's the first time they've applauded for anyone."  It was also the first time I'd ever finished in the money in a big tournament. I got a Scotch in the casino bar and unwound till I finally crashed around 3:30.


Slave trade

Wednesday we docked at our second and last port, La Paz, Mexico. Shortstack and I took the free shuttle to downtown, where we walked around a bit and I told my hard-luck story to anyone who would listen, including Ken "Skyhawk" Flaton and his lovely wife Crystal. Around four in the afternoon the cruise director began to make a ship-wide announcement every 15 minutes that there would be a Calcutta for the 27 remaining finalists in the Ocean Bar at 6:30. Shortstack and I put on our square-dance outfits and showed up on time but it turned out not to be a dance at all but an auction of human beings reminiscent of the Calcutta slave trade. Phil Hellmuth, Jr., emceed and with a wireless mike in his hand he was a force to be reckoned with. So many people showed up they moved it to the movie theater. I wanted to buy Howard, but as last year's champion he went for a huge premium over his chip count and I knew better than to bet on a horse at short odds just because I thought he was the favorite. Andy "The Rock" Bloch and I went halvsies on the winning bid for Barry "Charity" Greenstein, whom we thought was underpriced because his WPT episode hadn't yet aired. Phil was so entertaining that the auction didn't end till just before the tournament resumed at eight. I went up and watched three people get eliminated before our 8:30 reservation at the Pinnacle, including the stylish April Moody from Toronto who lost three big pots when her starting hands didn't connect. That seemed to be the way to go out of these limit tournaments.


With Howard, Steve Z, and John Juanda still in the tournament, we had a few empty seats at our table for 10. Suzy invited the brilliant young player Allen Cunningham and Melissa Hayden and I asked the young Atlantan on-line player David "Gunslinger" Bach to join us after a brief interview to determine he had a sufficiently colorful and checkered past to fit in. He told us about how he put himself through college by bowling before switching to poker. None of us could top that, but after acknowledging his well-tempered blend of the physical and mental I casually mentioned that an old buddy of mine from Microsoft owned the Professional Bowler's Association. He knew him and said he was doing a great job. We went with the Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet 1998 again but Suzie was in the mood for Merlot so we got a bottle of the Beringer Howell Mountain as well. The wine had just been poured when a sheepish Howard "Bub" (The Professor) Lederer walked in. "Oh no!" I cried, but it was true. Howard, relatively short stacked, had gone out, losing his last few chips on a bizarre hand to Daniel Negreanu. Howard was on the big blind for 10,000 and Daniel raised him his last 4000 chips on the small blind. Getting six-to-one odds, Howard called the bet without looking at his cards. Daniel turned over two red Queens. Howard reached for his cards, resigned to being a big underdog, but flipped them over to reveal Pocket Kings! The Flop came all Spades and Howard had the King of Spades so the only card that could beat him was the Queen of Clubs. It came on the Turn and the River was a blank so Howard was out of the contest. We had all had a feeling he was going to do the impossible and repeat last year's win but it was not to be. A few minutes later Steve Z walked in but he was just on a break and was still nursing his 120,000 chips, picking his spots and surviving.


After dinner we alternated between the Ocean Bar, where much bad karaoke was taking place, and the tournament room, where much good poker was. Andy, Howard, and I sweated the last few players but it was our friend John Juanda who got knocked out on the bubble, leaving Internet player Chris Hinchcliffe the chip leader and perhaps the toughest competition in the history of the WPT as the other five: Steve "Z" Zolotow, Scotty Nguyen, our horse Barry "Charity" Greenstein, the very tough Daniel Negreanu, and in his third WPT final table of the year, the frisky Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren. Erick was on top of the world and demanded I come up to the Crow's Nest for a drink so I did. The guy with the longest working hours on the ship, cameraman Paul Hannum, was there and he kindly predicted that next year it would be me at the final table on the cruise because last year at this time Erick had made his radar screen the way I had this year. I thanked him but said I had a long way to go before I was in Erick's league. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, who loved to dance, was up there, buoyant and friendly as always despite his long dry spell in the big tournaments. After three I congratulated Erick again and finally called it a night, leaving the night-owls still celebrating.


The final table didn't get going till 8 p.m. so I decided to try my luck at the cash games, having wet my feet at the Commerce Casino and come out OK. I played conservatively with just a little friskiness thrown in and came out a bit ahead without catching any really big hands. John "Napster" Fanning, inventor of the infamous eponymous peer-to-peer file sharing system, was fun to play with, splashing chips around and raking in huge pots when he had a real hand. The time flew by and soon it was time to dress up for formal night and the final table. Shortstack and I only brought pseudo-formal outfits on this trip because we only had carry-on luggage but for a poker player I looked like the King of Spain. No one got eliminated in the first half-hour and our horse Barry "Charity" Greenstein doubled up quickly to get right back in the race. We went back to the Pinnacle to have dinner with Suzie Lederer, Dave "Gunslinger" Bach, Allen Cunningham, Melissa Hayden, and others. As usual on these ships, the gourmet room's menu did not change but the filet mignon was yummy so I ordered it again. We went back to the 2000 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon and I demanded Suzie let me pay the bill tonight, in which to my dismay she acquiesced. Tournament director Matt Savage popped in to tell us Scotty Nguyen had gone out first, finishing in sixth place.


After dinner I found Howard watching the final table and arrived just in time to see my horse Barry walking away from the table to a thunderous round of applause, the fifth-place finisher, bound for his vaunted interview with Shana Hiatt. After that was done I congratulated him and he needlessly apologized for letting me down, not only one of the most skilled poker players alive but one of the classiest.  Steve "Z" Zolotow, who had survived numerous all-ins against this tough field, finally busted out in fourth place to a nice quarter-million-dollar paycheck and sprinted over to Shana. Chris Hinchcliffe, the Internet player, had kept up the aggressive style that got him here but the cards hadn't come and he went from having half the chips to the short stack. He soon busted out in third place in a checked-down three-way pot that Daniel won with King high. It was heads up with Daniel and Erick and they were virtually even in chips but Erick got all the cards and won pot after pot to leave Daniel short stacked. Daniel hung in as long as he could but the night belonged to E-Dog and he walked away with the million-dollar first prize, picking up that night's bar bill in the crow's nest for the entire ship in celebration. Now a two-time WPT champ, he was destined for superstar status once his episodes aired. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

Second chance

They had a second-chance tournament on Friday, the last day of the cruise, so I entered it thinking I would have a big advantage at 9:30 in the morning. This tournament was a shoot-out, so I had to win my first table to advance to the next level. I ran up against a couple good hands and busted out fourth so I had the rest of the day to play cash games with John "Napster" Fanning, WPT host Vince Van Patten and actor James Woods. It was a lot of fun and time flew by till it was time for our final dinner in the Pinnacle. Howard and Suzie Lederer were there, along with fourth-place finisher Steve "Z" Zolotow, who picked up the check, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and his girlfriend, and co-owner of Barry "Charity" Greenstein with me, Andy "The Rock" Bloch. We stuck with the 2000 Caymus Cabernet and I had the filet for the third night in a row. We crashed after dinner.

Dangerous alien

There was time for coffee and using up the last of my Internet minutes before debarkation started Saturday morning. I was listening to the public-address announcer, who had a voice mellifluous enough for the Metropolitan Opera, reel off the list of morons who had ignored the repeated requests to meet with Customs and Immigration, when I heard my own name. Moments later my cell phone rang and Shortstack was at the other end asking if I heard I was on the morons' list. I went up to the Crow's Nest, where Customs had set up shop, and found all the tournament winners of $10,000 or more being told they had to file currency-transportation forms. E-Dog was on a barstool, his million-dollar check in his pocket, filling out a form, and I filled one out even though the form was pretty specific that you only needed to fill one out if you were physically carrying currency or negotiable instruments across the border. I knew better than to argue with Customs and simply asked the nice lady if I had filled it out correctly. I wasn't too worried about it since I was almost certainly already on the Master List. Shortstack, as a dangerous Canadian alien, of course had already submitted to the cross-examination earlier.


Per the usual cruise-ship procedure, we were all issued numbered tags denoting our debarkation order. For some reason once the ship was cleared they called six groups at once and there was a huge backup at the exit. It was clear sailing once we left the ship though and we got pulled out of the taxi line by a Cloud Nine Shuttle, which whisked us to San Diego Airport in plenty of time for our 12:56 p.m. Alaska flight back to Seattle. There was no First Class or elite security line but we didn't have to wait long before we reached the crowded concourse. I was able to pick up a weak T/Mobile signal emanating from the Red Carpet Club and amused myself on the infinitely entertaining Internet while we waited.


Our flight was a bit over a half-hour late arriving from Seattle and the delay propagated to our departure. We settled into seats 1D and F and enjoyed superb service from our male flight attendant all the way to Seattle. It was just over a week till the next event in Reno and I was on a roll.


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